Philosophy by Paul Blaney
The first thing his wife said when he picked her up at the house was, ‘You’re late.’ It was true, and like her, too, to make such an abrupt statement. He could think of no response—though wasn’t he doing her a favor?—and so said nothing. He got on the highway, off the highway, pondered the radio but that felt wrong. Okay if he’d put it on before she got in, but not so now. Besides, it felt nice: the two of them side by side like that again, going somewhere. Not talking but with a shared purpose. It felt like what you might call an occasion.
As they drew closer she volunteered directions. He found the store—one of those warehouse-type places—parked, and in they went. He even held the door open for her. The interior was surprisingly stylish: a maroon carpet, chairs and sofas for sitting, some other furniture too, decent-looking stuff, plus they had two sets of dressing rooms, full-length mirrors, and of course all the dresses on their circular rails. It was like a high-end home with all the rooms combined into one; all it lacked were beds and a bathroom.
They’d arrived an hour before closing and they were the only customers. A polite woman, Hispanic, came up to help them—not young but not old either; he got the feeling she really cared. They talked, his wife and this woman, the way women did in situations like that. He tagged along as they drifted from here to there, looking at dresses, and then he said he’d sit down. He’d wait to see how the dresses looked once they were on.
The seat was a nice leather armchair; they even had the newspaper. He wasn’t a man who minded waiting. He’d read the sport and was onto the news section when he noticed his wife and the store-woman making for one of the changing rooms with their arms full of dresses. He trooped across, sat himself down on a sofa. It was nice, too, newer and more comfortable than his own sofa. There was a standing lamp and even a side table with candles and a fringed cloth, dried flowers. It was like something from a magazine: Home Interiors or Living in Style, something like that.
He’d forgotten to bring the newspaper but that was okay. After a while the store-woman came over and perched on the wing of the sofa, the two of them waiting for his wife to emerge in the first dress. She smiled at him in a way that suggested she didn’t think any less of him for his creased shirt and ill-fitting pants. ‘When’s the big day?’
‘How do you mean?’ he asked.
‘Your wedding.’ Her smile never faltered. ‘Your fiancée said the dress is for your wedding.’
‘That’s right,’ he told her, struggling to recall whether his wife had told him the wedding part. Surely he’d have remembered that? And then, because the store-woman was still looking at him: ‘Coming up real soon now. Next weekend in fact. Sunday.’
His wife came out in a midnight blue dress with a black rose on one of the shoulder straps. She gave them a twirl and he told her that that might just be the one. He told her she looked like she was in a pageant while the store-woman—Vanessa, he noticed, was her name—made little purring noises and murmured something in Spanish.
‘Right!’ said his wife. ‘Marks out of ten?’
He gave it a seven and a half—he didn’t want to go too high in case one of the others was better—and his wife headed back into the changing room. This time Vanessa sat down beside him on the sofa. He guessed she’d had a long day, maybe she was the manager too; anyway there were still no other customers. And he didn’t mind; she was easy to talk to, or listen to since she did most of the talking. She told him about her daughter who was studying dentistry, and a trip they’d taken to Puerto Rico over spring break. He enjoyed it when people were open and natural like that, telling you about their lives and their plans.
Dress two was less flattering. He and Vanessa exchanged looks and both shook their heads at the same moment. His wife considered herself in the full-length mirror, first one side and then the other, a hand raised to her belly, and then she, too, shook her head. She headed back into the changing rooms while he stayed on the sofa with Vanessa. ‘The only thing missing here is a TV,’ he joked, raising his hand as though wielding a remote control. ‘We could catch the news, or Jeopardy.’
Vanessa laughed. She was a fan of Jeopardy, she told him. He wondered did she have a husband and did they watch the show together, answering the questions out loud.
The third and final dress, a lighter shade of blue with an embroidered pattern, was better, but he stuck with number one. Vanessa agreed. His wife, standing before them in the embroidered dress, studied each of their faces in turn and then nodded. That was a thing he’d always admired about her: once a decision was made, there was no turning back.
Back she went into the changing room and he stayed on the sofa, chatting with Vanessa. He was enjoying himself and then, in what seemed like no time, there was his wife again, back in her original blouse and skirt with the chosen dress draped over her arm. Another store-woman appeared, took the dress, and bore it off toward the front of the store.
He assumed they were done but when Vanessa stood up, his wife took her place on the sofa, emitting a little sigh as she sat. Maybe they had to do something with the dress, he thought, wrap it or fold it. He didn’t ask.
‘You made a good choice,’ said Vanessa, standing where his wife had stood, in front of the TV—if they’d had a TV to watch. ‘Did your fiancé choose his suit already?’
‘He’s not my fiancé; he’s my husband,’ said his wife.
‘Oh! I must have misunderstood.’ Vanessa looked at him, not accusing, seeking clarification more like, and then back at his wife. ‘Your husband told me you were getting married next Sunday.’
‘I am getting married, but not next Sunday and not to my husband. I’m getting married to a different man. He’s called Jonathan.’ She was speaking to Vanessa but he got the feeling this was for his benefit, though, really, it was nothing he didn’t know already. ‘We plan to marry in the Fall.’
‘I see,’ said Vanessa and glanced off toward the front of the shop. ‘I should be closing soon.’
He began to get up but his wife stayed put. He settled down again beside her and tugged his pants up off his knees. He knew she had more to say, but she made them wait. ‘This man here,’ again she addressed her comments to Vanessa, not looking his way, ‘who is still my husband, is a philosopher. According to his philosophy, as long as you don’t take something seriously, then it can’t really happen. It can’t be real. He tried it with our marriage, and then with the kids. Now he’s trying the same thing with our divorce. Even though we’ve been separated for three and a half years. Even though I’m living with another man, going to marry another man.’
‘I’ll see if we’re all ready then.’ Smiling no longer, Vanessa beat a retreat toward the tills.
Still his wife didn’t get up, nor did he feel he could make the first move. She’d called him that before, the Armchair Philosopher, but never in public. And she’d never before expounded on the nature of his philosophy. He stretched his legs out a little on the maroon carpet, fixing his gaze ahead of the sofa where a rail of silk dresses made a gentle curve.
‘A penny for your thoughts?’
It wasn’t an expression he recalled her ever using. Was it one of his, he wondered, Jonathan’s.
‘What’s on your mind?’
‘Just thinking,’ he said, ‘how surprising it is to be here like this, helping you choose a wedding dress.’ He resisted an impulse to turn, to give her a smile. ‘Not the sort of thing you expect.’
‘I don’t know why you’re surprised,’ she said. ‘I reckon you’re exactly the type of man who could expect a thing like that. And, besides, I always appreciated your taste.’
Still without turning, he reached for her hand, the two hands lying between them on the sofa. The hands touched but hers was withdrawn. She got up off the sofa. ‘Better pay before they lock us in here for the night.’
Off she went and he was left on the brown leather sofa. It was nice to hear that his wife still appreciated his taste, but of course it wasn’t for that that she’d asked him along today. Or not mainly for that. Had she said wedding dress the other night when she called? He couldn’t remember; it was possible. She was asking him for a divorce, that much was clear. She’d asked for one before, two or three times that he could recall, but this was a new turn.
Some of the lights were turned off, casting the back of the store into shadow. He heard the noise of a credit card machine, his wife paying for her new dress. For her wedding dress. He tried to think about it; he’d tried that before, but now he made a real effort. So his wife would divorce him and get married to Jonathan—and the kids? He wasn’t sure it would make much difference to the kids. His wife, in her blue dress, would marry Jonathan, and how would he feel then? What did he think about that? What he thought was that he didn’t know what he thought. What his wife had just said though, that wasn’t right, or not exactly. It wasn’t that he didn’t take the possibility seriously; he didn’t think it was that at least: denial. It was more like he couldn’t imagine it. No, he could imagine it. He imagined the dress, his wife, Jonathan, the kids, well-dressed guests sitting in rows of red velvet chairs.
The store-woman was there again, not Vanessa, the other. She told him Mrs Tyler was ready; it took him a moment to recall that this was his wife’s maiden name. He nodded but didn’t get up. He simply held the woman’s gaze until she reddened and withdrew.
He could imagine his wife marrying Jonathan; the thing was he couldn’t believe in it. Of course it might happen, most likely would happen—they were already living together—but ithadn’t happened yet. And how could you know how something would affect you until it actually happened? He knew that other people, people like his wife, most people, that they saw things differently. They saw a thing coming and they decided to act, acting either to stop it or else to make it happen. Not him though; the way he looked at things, you couldn’t know how they would turn out. You couldn’t make them happen or not happen either, not really. All you could do was to keep watching, to wait and see. Was that a philosophy?
More lights went out in the store but he didn’t get up. He didn’t move except to slide further into the couch, his legs outstretched and fingers interlaced behind his head. After a while he reached for the remote and aimed it at the TV. It felt like it might be time for Jeopardy.
© Paul Blaney, 2012
Paul Blaney is Writer in Residence in the SAS Honors Program at Rutgers University. Born of Northern Irish parents, he was brought up in England, and now lives in Allentown, PA. While cameras invariably portray him as a drug-crazed sociopath, he really wouldn't hurt a fly! A novella of Paul's, "Handover," will be published by Typhoon Press (Hong Kong) towards the end of this year.
Philosophy was read by Katherine Barron on 6th June 2012.